LOS ANGELES -- It's 797 snaps. That's the number Sammy Watkins was projected to play in 2017 before he, like most starters, sat out the regular-season finale. The Los Angeles Rams now have to replace those snaps. But it isn't really about the raw number; it's about the type of receiver those snaps came from -- a respected, explosive, playmaking vertical threat who can take the top off coverages and open the middle of the field for others.
Watkins provided that for a Rams team that became the first in the Super Bowl era to go from last to first in scoring from one season to the next. He made only 39 catches for 593 yards, but he caught eight touchdown passes, seven of them on plays inside the red zone, and he consistently created separation that helped free fellow receivers such as Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp.
The Rams valued the skill set so much that they were strongly considering utilizing the franchise tag on Watkins before giving it to safety Lamarcus Joyner. Now Watkins is gone, joining the Kansas City Chiefs with a three-year, $48 million contract that was representative of his robust market -- and the Rams are scrambling for ways to replace what he provided.
"It’s going to be hard," head coach Sean McVay said, "and that’s something that we’re trying to figure out now. I don’t necessarily think you do that with one player; I think it’ll be kind of by committee."
Below is a look at what that committee might look like.
Josh Reynolds (or Mike Thomas): The Rams have two promising -- albeit raw and unproven -- vertical threats on their roster. There's the 6-foot-3, 191-pound Reynolds, a fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M in last year's draft. And there's the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Thomas, taken in the sixth round in 2016. Thomas opened some eyes during last year's offseason workouts, but then he missed time in training camp, was handed a four-game suspension and faded into the background. Reynolds is the favorite here. He impressed throughout the summer, then replaced Woods while he spent three weeks rehabbing a shoulder injury and performed well. But the jury is still out on whether Reynolds can consistently win one-on-one matchups and dictate coverages. "He’s demonstrated flashes," McVay said. "In terms of being in a vertical role, I think that remains to be seen."
The tight ends: No team ran more three-receiver sets than the Rams last season. They went to them almost exclusively because they liked the trio of Watkins, Woods and Kupp, but also because their young tight ends hadn't developed enough to be on the field together. McVay is hoping that changes this season. Tyler Higbee, heading into his third NFL season, and Gerald Everett, heading into his second, are both athletic tight ends who can stretch the deep middle of the field. McVay might be able to use them together more often to potentially keep safeties honest, with hopes that one of them can take on a role similar to the one Jordan Reed filled on the Washington Redskins when McVay was offensive coordinator there. But that is a tough ask. Higbee, on the field most often last year, hauled in 36 of 74 targets for 380 yards in his first two seasons. Everett caught 16 of 32 targets for 244 yards as a rookie.
Tavon Austin (or Pharoh Cooper): The Rams' dire straits without Watkins were illustrated perfectly by Thursday's surprising decision to keep Austin with a restructured contract. They're trying, once again, that they can find an actual role for the 5-foot-8 speedster who has had a hard time fitting into the offense since being the No. 8 overall pick in 2013. The Rams went into last offseason hoping Austin could develop into that vertical threat, but that became unnecessary when Watkins was acquired. Now they're simply going to give him a chance to compete for snaps at receiver. Cooper brings a similar skill set, mainly as someone who is best utilized coming in motion and getting the ball behind the line of scrimmage. But his main role is to return punts and kickoffs, which made him a Pro Bowl selection last year.
Someone else: The best receiver remaining might be Terrelle Pryor, and the Rams have reportedly shown interest in him. Pryor had a poor season in Washington last year, which was cut short by ankle surgery, but he still has the ability to be a big-play, 1,000-yard receiver. There's also Michael Crabtree, the 30-year-old who was recently released by the Oakland Raiders. Mike Wallace is another, cheaper option. If the Rams seek tight-end upgrades, a couple of potential options remain in Eric Ebron and Martellus Bennett. Restructuring Austin's contract -- which created $3 million in non-guaranteed, reachable incentives that must count toward the salary cap on the front end -- has them at just under $30 million once you factor in signing their draft picks. But the Rams still need run-stuffers and edge rushers, and they have a hole at center. Oh, and there's also the Aaron Donald situation.